A Letter to David Campbell on the Birthday of W. B. Yeats, 1965



Well, I drink to you, David Campbell, but I drop a curse in the cup
For begging a poem on Willy Yeats that took so long growing up.
I thought myself safe from rhyming chores, but see I’ve been sold a pup.

A poem for Yeats’s birthday? You’re organizing a wake
For a boy that’s been born a hundred years? Sure, that’s a piece of cake!
Write it yourself, why don’t you? Why don’t you jump in the lake?

And then I begin to weaken as, of course, I always do;
It’s hard to resist you anyway, but the subject tempts me too:
That marvellous, monstrous century Yeats didn’t quite live through.

He was born to the swansdown feeling, when the world was wacky and wide;
Tennyson, Browning and Pinch-me went down to swim with the tide;
And the Wrath of God descended on Poetry when he died.

And in between there was Willy—indeed I loved the man;
Best thing out of Ireland since Tuatha Dè Danann;
Back of me hand to the warty boys, but I’ll write a piece if I can.


Sure, I’ll write a piece for Willy. It’s long time to be dead!
Madame Blavatsky’s cuckoo-clock, does he mind now what it said:
“Never you rhyme to a ladybird; just keep her warm in bed!”
See what a pig of a world it is, the bard was put upon:
Madame Blavatsky’s cuckoo turned out to be a swan,
And the swan broke Willy’s heart at last, and now he’s dead and gone.
Now he sleeps with his fathers and minds his p’s and q’s.
(If it’s some of those I could mention, it won’t be much of a snooze);
But maybe he thinks of other things and cuddles up to the Muse.
Is it Dublin Senate he sits in? Does he walk through a Dublin school?
Dream of the green-room squabbles or the peaceful lake at Coole?
Does he lose himself in the mortal storm with king, beggar and fool?
Does he recall the politicos the day he explained his plans
For raising the ghosts of Ireland by spells and talismans
To drive the English into the sea and beat the Black and Tans?
Willy was often a prize galah. We musn’t say it aloud:
They wouldn’t like it in Dublin and we’ve got to do him proud.
So let’s dig him up for his hundred years and get him out of his shroud.
And not too solemn about it! I know the occasion’s grand,
But after all it’s his birthday, or so I understand,
And a frock-coated speech to a tombstone was a thing he could not stand.


What if he talked to the fairies? What if he talked through his hat?
The talk itself was magic, and musical magic at that!
And all us sensible fellows, doesn’t he leave us flat?

And you and I who are poets, we know the reason why
This is a day for a laughing, not for a weeping, eye:
We go to waken our Master whose bones shall prophesy!

We go to conjure a creature that slouches from its den
Now that the time comes round for the word to be born again,
The word that a poet utters, and then becomes, for men.

We are the earth’s and of it, but his was the master’s spell
That opens a pass to heaven and breaks the jaws of hell;
The tongues of men and of angels—and charity as well!

He was the golden candle that lights man’s way to die;
The great shoulder of courage that props a falling sky;
And the voice of intellectual joy we go on living by.

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